Thursday, 29 May 2014

3-D Ant

Simulators often have a dedicated group of fans that often mod, add to and improve the simulator of their liking. Besides a few popular simulators (sims and simcity) I've never really used a simulator. Though lately I have been captivated by Kerbal Space Program. It's a space exploration simulator that let's you build rockets and launch and manoeuvre them.


Most of the time simulators are perceived as different to games. There's usually no structure to guide a player nor is there an opponent. Still as ever being a game or not is not a dichotomy. KSP is one of those simulators that is beginning to bridge the divide.

One of the last updates for KSP has introduced a career mode. Instead of having ready access to all rocket parts from the start, you have to unlock several parts at a time by collecting research credits during missions. This forces you to think about efficiency and feasibility of your exploration missions. There will probably be a few more parameters added in the future, to make the carreer mode more challenging and realistic.

This career mode probably made it fun for me. Instead of having ready access to parts, I have to push myself while being introduced to space exploration on a step by step basis. Nothing is more frustrating then spending half an hour to get a craft in a lunar orbit, but crashing it during landing...

Simulator games can offer us many benefits as a training ground and often a cheap alternative for the real thing.

So here's a parable on space exploration, borrowed from the anime Space Brothers (宇宙兄弟):

Once there were ants, only able to move forward on a straight path.
These 1-D ants walked on and on, till they met an obstacle.
It was a rock, and all the ants halted their way and panicked.
"How do we get passed it? " they said amongst themselves.

One ant rose up and said, "follow me!".
The ant showed them how to move left around the obstacle.
and at a next rock another ant showed them to move right.
The 2-D ant was born.

Able to move forward, left, right and backwards (left+left, right+right).
They travelled far, they travelled wide.
In the end they hit an obstacle, as far as they could travel left and right.
"How do we get passed it? " they said amongst themselves.

Source: Kenny Meguro
Yet again an and rose up and said, "follow me!".
And they moved up, climbing the wall.
The 3-D ant was born.

How do games expand your world?

Friday, 28 March 2014

What is a game? (the ongoing project part I)

My thoughts on games and play seem to be evolving ^^ , so this blog is already a success to me.
I want to examine my following statement:

“A construct set up to facilitate play might even be the best definition of “game”, because the behaviour of play differs so much it's clearly hard to define universal characteristics of games.”

I guess the form of the construct that facilitates play can vary significantly, but if it didn’t facilitate play it wouldn’t be a game. To say that games are only played would be an understatement. Games are not only played, they are experienced and engaged. Games can be “watched” and enjoyed for their story, like a good tv-show. It’s even possible to live through otherwise dangerous experiences (like war situations or car races) using a game as a simulation. Games may demand strategies to be perfected as a player heads further into the game, a proverbial puzzle test. Some games are action packed to deliver a dose of adrenaline. There are even puzzle games, which makes me doubt if puzzles are not just games. In the end games cater to a wide range of interests.

The more I think about it, all games challenge at least one skill in an enjoyable way. Though the range of interests or skills to be challenged is immensely diverse, the enjoyable challenge that games provide seems a common denominator. Going back to the previous paragraph, it doesn’t have to be the challenge of skill alone that keeps the gamer engaged. Due to their interactive nature, games can create a layered experience without equal. In the end each player interacts with a game in a different way to create their own experience.

Still for a bit of falsification I thought about Minecraft and Lego. At least the original Minecraft was about building with blocks, like Lego but cheaper because you could make as many blocks as you'd like :p . Both can be played with and the play is enjoyable, they can even challenge skills like spatial insight and several creative skills. However they initially support unstructured play. They are building blocks for creation, calling the act of playing with Lego a game would be like calling drawing with pencils a game. In the end all games support play but nog all play needs games. What we call games seem to facilitate at least in part a structured form of play.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Play and Games; a closer look (part II)

That many animals with a certain minimal amount of intelligence play, is a fact. We are no different in this respect (it would be interesting to know if a social structure or the level of intelligence determines the amount of play). Evolutionary biologists propose that play must be important, as the risk of injury during physical play is significant. So why would beings play at all?
Source: Quim Gil on Flickr
Research from psychology supports that play (at least in humans) is beneficial to cognitive, motor and emotional development. Modern findings in neuroscience suggest that play promotes adaptivity and multiple ways to achieve a desired result, improvisation. It should be noted that learning through play is great for learning procedural knowledge, mostly non explicit knowledge on (social) behaviours and rules in different contexts. It's not been established that play promotes declarative knowledge (formal knowledge of facts) more than other activities. That play is great for procedural knowledge seems strangely obvious, considering that a lot of play is rule governed, and games are at least partly constructs of rules.

Wikipedia mentions that Marc Bekoff (a University of Colorado evolutionary biologist) who proposes a "flexibility" hypothesis that attempts to incorporate these findings. It argues that play helps learn to switch and improvise all behaviors more effectively, to be prepared for the unexpected. "Play may teach beings to avoid "false endpoints"". In other words, beings that play will harness the tendency to keep playing with something that works "well enough", eventually allowing them to come up with something that might work better, if only in some situations. This also allows beings to build up various skills that could come in handy in entirely novel situations and actually wield their intelligence as a benefit." Another advantage is that play allows beings to practice concepts that are not formally taught like how to manage misinformation and deceit, supported by findings that play promotes procedural knowledge.

Source: Chefkeem on Pixabay

This is all well but it doesn't answer the question, why a being would engage in play in the first place and enjoy it? Why would dealing with challenge be enjoyable? To answer this question, I'll step out of the play focused box. These days learning is not experienced as fun by many humans, because of institutionalized presumptions such as that it should be serious. Still, play has a lot of positive learning effects and is displayed more by younger beings. This correlates with the fact that only beings with a certain minimal amount of intelligence engage in play and that play has many developmental benefits. There fore I hypothesise that play is originally a behaviour that promotes learning and learning starts out as fun.

Even human children start out with a liking for learning. A great audio takeaway sheds some light on the joy of learning. In the takeaway John Gabrieli (neuroscientist at MIT) gives a short interview. He starts out that the brain has a robust reward mechanism in the brain for the activity of learning, based in the lower part of the basal ganglia. It produces dopamine if a being is put in a state of anticipation and engagement (games are well known to do both). This dopamine reinforces learning and delivers a feeling of joy.

Source: Wikipedia

A girl looks at her feet, she's only three years old. She's playing tag, together with some cousins and her older brother. While she's running away from her one year older cousin her face shows utter concentration. If she trips, she's "it". Not only does she have to fine-tune her motoric movements beyond regular walking, she also has to switch her attention continuously to avoid the branches, tree trunks and the precious roses of her aunt. This stimulates her brain in many ways, the challenge that arises from a difference in what she can and can't yet quite fully do makes the activity even more stimulating. An intrinsic drive to run faster, be smarter and not be "it". The garden borders a forest, and in the distance she can see young deer doing almost the same as she and her family members are doing. They are playfully running after each other. On their drive home her dad suddenly clunks the horn, the deer jump aside to live another day. What greater evolutionary benefit than to make the acquisition of key survival skills fun through play? 

To say that play is only fun because of dopamine while learning in an engaged state, would be too short-sighted. This is just an attempt to put play in a cross-species developmental perspective, though the findings of different areas of science seem to match like a puzzle. It's probably the language barrier, but on first sight the research on animals playing seems to be short at hand. Maybe worth a look on another day...

Monday, 17 March 2014

Play and games; a closer look

Lately I feel the urge to broaden my personal view of games and the behaviour of play. I came to realise that I probably skipped a few steps by diving deep into the world of the motivation to play games. Games seem to be implicitly linked to so many things like the image of a child having fun, innocence, no serious implications, past-time silliness  and the behaviour of play itself. I'm probably not qualified to paint a picture of games and play that's sound in all the related areas of expertise like biology, neurology and anthropology. But I want to move forward in my understanding of games and will just give it a shot.

The behaviour implicitly linked to games is "play". Games are played, though sometimes we simply say we game*. That there are words created for these phenomena almost makes you forget that the behaviour of play is not exclusive to the human species. There does appear to be a minimal level of intelligence before playful behaviour is displayed. Playful ravens, wolfs, seals, felines are easy to imagine. Still it would be a blast if fish or Cephalopoda were found with playful behaviour. Regardless of the species, playful behaviour does seem to fade as age increases.

Playful behaviour of other beings should not be judged through human morality, else it can seem quite malignent.

Playful behaviour always seems to lack serious implications or a fixed goal. The seal in the previous video was not meant to be eaten, like a clean and efficient kill.

There are probably exceptions but a lot of playful behaviour seems to be embedded in social contact. Playing with others is more fun of course and creating cards to play solitaire seems to be a prerequisite for more intricate solo play. Unless monkeys program their first game.

Source: Wikimedia - New York Zoological Society

* A construct set up to facilitate play might even be the best definition of “game”, because the behaviour of play differs so much it's clearly hard to define universal characteristics of games.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Opening Doors with Udacity

About a week ago I restarted my attempt to learn to program. There are a lot of great and free tutorials to get you started. The one I'm following is "Introduction to Computer Science" by Udacity. It's a decent challenge, might be a bit too challenging for total noobs though. The only thing I miss is some more practice material. Still the instruction and explanation material is great.

It's basic setup is to allow you to create a basic search engine with an index, crawler etc. Today I'll start with the lessons of week four. By now all kinds of interesting things have passed by, like a sudoku checker. Of course several programming operations have already passed by like declaring statements, if statements and for loops.

Another advantage that Udacity has in my opinion is that it offers follow up courses, which are already in my agenda. All accessible anytime, anywhere. Free knowledge, to free creativity!

Source: Taina B. and V. van Gogh
Who know I might even create a game of my own....

Friday, 7 March 2014

Why being social and games is a match

This post will be an extender of my previous post on the Ted talk of Kelly McGonigal on different impact stress can have, depending one the way you view stress. If you see it as harmful, it becomes harmful. If you see the effects of stress (higher heart rate and higher oxygen intake) as helpful to rise to a challenge it's not harmful at all.

Right now I want to explore a second fact she highlighted in her talk. Another hormone that's produced during stress is oxytocine. It's kind of the new super hormone that neuroscientists pride around with, but still let's have a look. This hormone makes you more likely to engage in social behaviour. So stress makes you more likely to be social. Social contact during stress can give you all kinds of benefits like help, support and banding together to have a revolution. Social contact in turn releases more oxytocine, and oxytocine helps shield your body against possible negative effects of stress. It also stimulates the regeneration of heart cells, repairing damage.

One factor that is mentioned a lot as a motivator to play games is social contact. This factor totally mystified me and probably will in more or lesser degree for a long while (I'm a solo player mostly). Before the age of computer generated adversaries games were table top games and the like, demanding a human counterpart. Humans can of course be challenging to play against and with. Still humans in those times were necessary, maybe you just liked the game and other players were a prerequisite to actually play.

However a uses-and-gratifications approach to games teaches us that games can also be used making a plea for social contact as a motivator to game. We can't deny that (with a few exceptions of course) we are social animals that reap many benefits and joy from social contact. Looking a players as a whole this means that one group of players simply plays because they like playing with other players, known or unknown to them. Games always seem to lower the boundaries for reaching out to others, like a kid meeting other kids by picking up a ball. (This makes me wonder how prevalent other factors of motivation are in people that are highly motivated to play a game because of social factors.)

Still I think that social contact is not always a motivator but can just as well be a result of video games. To become good at certain games like shooters you need peers to rise against, practice against and learn from. This the players that really like shooters more likely to meet other people.

Extending on the talk by Kelly, there's another group. Games certainly can be stressful and it's impact and outcome can vary to great extremes as demonstrated by the video. Certain players will have negative effects because of stress in games and even those who don't experience them can lower their stress level even more by engaging in social contact. Games can even make you more social, who would have guessed? Certainly not conservative digi haters.

On stress: rise up to that challenge

A few days ago I came across a Ted talk by Kelly McGonigal on stress and it's effect on the human physique.

It's pretty hard to evade situations of high stress levels during your whole life. Most of us will experience at least one of the life changing events that is linked to high levels of stress. Still the effect this stress has on ones physique can differ hugely. People who view stress as bad for you tend to have constricted blood vessels , and maybe even their body (noting the common stuck muscles). This apparently is one of the explanations for the link between high blood pressure and stress. Those who do not see stress as harmful, have relaxed blood vessels, allowing the higher heart rate that occurs during periods of high stress to pump blood around unconstricted. The latter group even has the lowest change to die from all the observed groups with different stress levels and beliefs of stress.

This explains a phenomenon I experienced personally, while participating on a study of arousal by games and heart rate. My heart rate actually went down while playing an arousing game (Portal 2).
Though I must say there are numerous other activities that have proven to be stressful and had quite a malignant effect. That's an interesting side note actually.

Noted is that the positive curbing of arousal seems to occur when people view the arousal as being part of rising to a challenge. One of the key points of arousal in games is that it's part of rising to challenges. It wouldn't be such a great leap from there to saying that games might be beneficial to managing or curbing the impact of stress.